The Parable of the Riots and the Intellectual: On the Ministry of Culture Protest

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First there was a riot, a kind of street fight with the police. Killings led to a sit-in that led to power changing hands. No one took issue with the hangman’s noose swinging symbolically at the maidan, though the riots were supposed to be silmiyyah. The killers never hanged in the end, and no one took issue with that. Only the rioters vowed to take revenge unless the courts hanged someone, but when the courts said not guilty it was all they could do to start a new fight. And in every new fight more rioters were killed. It became something of a national fetish to riot, and riots sprang up everywhere in the country, sometimes for no reason at all, often because no one was hanged.

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Watermelon republic

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Watermelon republic
Ensconced online, Youssef Rakha plays sportscaster
In the last few weeks cyber politicising has of course centred on the presidential elections. Apart from a few smallish boycott campaigns on Facebook, few have discussed the significance of what—were it not for the Washington-blessed military-and-Islamist pincers holding political reality in place—would have been the most significant event in Egyptian history since 1953. No one has brought up such issues as the absurdity of running in the absence of a constitution (i.e., on a programme that may prove impracticable once the constitution is drafted), the fact that democratic process is untenable under the hegemony of a military junta, or the lack of any difference between rigging and obtaining votes by distributing sacs of rice or bottles of cooking oil or indeed gas cylinders a la Muslim Brotherhood campaign strategy. The politicising has centred, rather, on who to vote for—and activists as much as analysts, both professional and amateur, have displayed disturbing levels of hysteria in championing the cause of their candidate of choice, fuelled either by supposed loyalty to the revolution and its martyrs or by concern for the future of security and economic stability—with the result that the scene looks like a football match in which the players are substandard and the two teams on the field (the Islamists and the Fuloul or “Remnants of the Fallen Regime”) are vying for supporters of a third (the Revolutionaries) that has been disqualified from competing.
Of the 13 candidates, four (2, 3, 7 and 11) remain more or less completely unknown. Three (the Islamist intellectual Mohammed Selim El Awwa-8, the oppositional judge Hisham El Bastawisi-6 and the leftist MP Abul Ezz El Hariri-1) are generally believed to have little or no chance. And one would seem to be running more to demonstrate that he can than to actually win: the young lawyer and activist Khalid Ali (12), perceived by the writers-and-artists ghetto as the revolution’s candidate—”the romantic dreamers’ choice,” as it has been put—comes across as an unintelligent parody of the populist orator, barely adequate for the presidency of the Youth Centre at the working-class neighbourhood-cum-shanty town of Habbaneyya. Five candidates remain, only one of whom—the well-known Nasserist politician Hamdin Sabbahi (10)—remains outside the Islamist-Fuloul polarity. Despite Arab nationalist and centralist hangovers, reported affinities with Saddam and Gaddafi, and occasional statements in support of Al Qaeda, Sabbahi’s programme would seem to be the pragmatic-progressive path of least resistance under the circumstances; and those relatively sensible tweeps and Facebookers who are cured of spasticity have switched to his side. But it is regarding the four polar candidates that most of the cockfights have taken place: the conservative Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed (Spare Tyre) Morsi-13, who ran in place of Khairat El Shater when the latter was legally blocked from running; the reformist Muslim Brotherhood’s Abdel Moneim (Retired Terrorist) Abul Fetouh-5, who had to resign from the Muslim Brotherhood in order to run; the former air force commander, civil aviation minister and last prime minister under Mubarak Ahmad (George W.) Shafik-9; and the former foreign minister and Arab League secretary Amr (Cigar Bey) Moussa-4.
Not to suggest that they are any less likely to win than the other three, Spare Tyre and George W. have elicited more mockery than critique, as they are patently empty dummies of what they stand for: respectively, corrupt quasi-theocracy whose principal achievement thus far has been organising mass female-genital-mutilation bonanzas in the provinces, and the pre-25 Jan status quo. Apart from the latter’s often hilarious verbal blunders (“Unfortunately the revolution succeeded”, or “I fought for my country: I killed and I was killed”), they have done nothing to induce any strong feelings—or change anyone’s mind about anything. So it is to (especially liberal) supporters of Retired Terrorist and their cigar-lighting detractors that much of the frenzied pecking has fallen; who will draw blood first remains to be seen. As it has been repeatedly pointed out, however, the pro-revolution, conscientious and “enlightened” face of the Brotherhood is as fanatical as the best of them: suffice to say that, on air, he broke down in tears over his differences with his comrades in arms more often than over anything else; he expressed respect for the assassins of president Sadat, and never repented being a founding member of the Jamaa Islamiya (who are responsible for the bulk of tourist bombings and assassinations of secular figures during the 1990s), so even if he has renounced violence, Abul Fetouh’s loyalties are clear. Drinkers, unmarried couples, creative people and other believers in personal freedom can look forward to various forms of elimination or refugee status abroad. Amr Bey, on the other hand—though infinitely more sophisticated and articulate than Shafik—is a self-acknowledged pillar of the post-9/11 world order; he tries to curry favour by pretending to have championed the Palestinian cause when in fact he is among the architects of the defunct peace process; he is old and arrogant and unlikely to shy away from heavy-handed suppression of the opposition, probably by now more interested in his cigars and other pleasures than anything else indeed.
Still, when all is said and done, the action is only just beginning. Now that it is watermelon season, watching while we make obscene squishy noises and drip red liquid everywhere should be fun. Needless to say, this writer is boycotting the presidential elections.

Scribo ergo sum

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On New Year’s Eve, one completes another book (yes, the speaker is an author of books). One knows it will probably be published, possibly even translated to a language more literarily alive than Arabic. Yet, though one has wholly lost faith in the so called intellectual community since the so called revolution, one expects little interest on the part of the general public — in itself a contentious construction, “the general public”, but this is not the point. Even in that better world of intellectual vitality, of profit-making publishers and many-storied bookshops, of faces glued to highbrow paperbacks on the Metro, what one has written will at best remain marginal and exotic, a taste of the Third World, an object of anthropological rather than literary interest (could this explain the fact that otherwise intelligent critics in the Anglo-American world have used terms like “great Egyptian author” to describe the barely literate writer of predictably “best-selling” fictionalised tabloid journalism?)

Such peremptory disappointment has nothing to do with the content of the book completed, alas. Never mind the fact that books which sell are usually more stupid than those which don’t — even in the aforementioned better world. It would actually be satisfying to have a space, any space in which, after writing and publishing something, you faced serious censure of ideas expressed or style of expression, a space in which any attention at all was paid literature for its own sake — not as part of the increasingly complex glorified PR that forms the substance of so much “intellectual” activity in the Arab world. As it is no such space exists even in private, where a given “intellectual” will typically have too much to read and too little time beyond that dedicated to the kind of lucrative sucking-up-cum-backstabbing that goes for journalism and/or academia. In this year of our Lord what you have is a minister of culture highly keen on cowing in to “Islamist pressures” before such pressures have even been exerted, a bunch of die-hard pedagogues-to-be choking on the word “revolution”, and a self-sustained, English language-powered fantasy of “the emerging Arab literary scene” in which talentless women, complacent shit-stirrers and prehistoric ideologues, not to mention bland imitators of the writing of past decades, frenziedly elbow each other out of what little shelf space is available for “Arabic literature in translation” outside the mainstream markets, up to and including all manner of prizes awarded if not through nepotism then arbitrarily.

On New Year’s Eve — by facing up to the Lie that is Arabic literature on the Arab bookshelf — one is reminded, again, of the fact that one completes a book neither for an audience nor for a peer nor even a translator but for that rare specimen: the like-minded literate Arabic-speaker eager to be part of that old epistemological exercise, eminently enjoyable but never easy, of trying to make sense of the world through words. One willingly gives up none of the attendant benefits — publication, translation, PR or even awards — but it is for that rare thing, the Arabic reader, that one endeavours to share what one is proud to have accomplished.

THREE POEMS AND A PHOTO